Taskforce—the Y Combinator Startup With a Solution for E-mail Overload

This is the first in a series of profiles of Y Combinator Winter 2011 (YC W11) startups.

E-mail: it’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s become the central tool for business and personal communication, yet for exactly that reason it gets more and more difficult every year to keep up with the growing number of messages in our inboxes. If you believe time management gurus like David Allen, responding to those messages promptly and getting them off your plate is crucial to personal productivity. Yet, speaking for myself, I get so much e-mail that I could (and some days do) spend half of my work time just battling my inbox.

One of the startups emerging from the winter session of the Y Combinator venture incubator in Mountain View, CA, is tackling this problem. It’s called Taskforce, and it’s built a Web browser add-on for users of Google’s Gmail that makes it very easy to convert e-mail messages into tasks on a list. (By the way, this is going to be Y Combinator week at Xconomy San Francisco. Taskforce is one of 45 startups that will be making their pitches to investors this week at the incubator’s Demo Day presentations; I’ll have a Demo Day summary debrief on Thursday, and meanwhile I’m working on longer feature stories about five “YC W11” companies.)

Longtime readers of my articles know that I’ve spent years searching for the perfect combination of e-mail management and to-do list tools. After using Taskforce for a couple of weeks, I have to say that this one gets closer than anything else I’ve tried—though the danger, as with any system like this, is that you simply wind up with a ridiculously long to-do list in place of your ridiculously overfull e-mail inbox. More on that in a moment.

Beyond just helping you turn e-mails into tasks, Taskforce has an important collaboration feature, as well as a calendar for hiding some tasks until they actually need to be done. And more features are on the way, according to Taskforce co-founder Niccolo Pantucci. But its main function is to help you empty out your inbox by getting the critical action-oriented items onto a checklist. Which is pretty useful, because, let’s face it, most e-mails boil down to a request from somebody else that you do something.

The Taskforce widget appears above the Gmail inbox (yellow box).

Pantucci says he came up with the idea for Taskforce while he was stranded in the UK last April by the air-traffic-disrupting Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Iceland. At the time, he was working for a San Francisco online video ad company called LiveRail. “I was trying to work from London, and I started to realize that I’m using Salesforce, I’m using Basecamp, and I’m using my inbox as a to-do list, and I’m logging into three or four different places all the time,” Pantucci says. “It wasn’t working for me. I thought, ‘You know what, there is probably a new way to do this. A data aggregator or editor that sits next to your inbox and extracts all the important things and turns it into something useful.”

Once you’ve installed the Taskforce add-on—which is free, and works on the Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and RockMelt browsers—the app shows up as a small blue bar in a patch of unused screen real-estate near the top of the Gmail window. The bar expands when you click on it to show your pending tasks. You can create tasks directly from the Taskforce widget, but the app’s real smarts—the data extraction part that Pantucci mentions—are apparent when you’re faced with a new incoming e-mail. When you open an individual message, the app inserts a button above the message body labeled “Convert to New Task.” If you click it, the app creates a new to-do item on your task list, using the email header as the suggested text (though you can edit this); at the same time, it gives you the option of e-mailing the sender to let them know you’ve added the task to your list. After that, further discussion of the task takes place within the Taskforce widget.

The idea is to reduce clutter in your e-mail inbox by rerouting task-focused messages to the widget, which isn’t something you can do with the Gmail’s existing Tasks feature. “This is one of the huge differences between us and so many other task managers,” says Pantucci. “We want Taskforce to be useful for the individual, for a small team, or for the entire organization.”

Since opening up the service to the public in February, Taskforce has “seen some really good pickup from business users,” Pantucci says. While he won’t name specific figures, he says the app has “tens of thousands of users.” The “Convert to New Task” button is the feature most users like best, Pantucci says. “It’s simple yet powerful. You’re saying, ‘I can’t deal with this e-mail right now, I need to deal with it later.’ And on the back of that, we’ve built other stuff users love, like delaying a task.” Using the delay feature, you can make a task disappear from your list until a specified date, thus putting it out of sight and out of mind until it’s important.

Of course, if you don’t take time out from managing your e-mail to go to actually complete the items on your Taskforce list, then you’re really just shuffling information around, not being more productive. But from Pantucci’s point of view, simply converting an e-mail into a task item can be an important first step. “There is a mental moment where you are saying, ‘This is X or Y, follow up,'” he says. “You are already taking some kind of action, which is to get it out of your face. You can pick off the ones you can do right now, but there are always going to be a bunch you are not going to do right now.”

Pantucci is a 2006 graduate of the University of Cambridge, and his co-founder Courtland Allen is a 2009 computer-science graduate of MIT. Taskforce is actually Allen’s second e-mail related project. The first was Syphir, which allows Gmail users to filter messages (that is, sort them by automatically applying labels) in ways that Gmail itself can’t handle. The app, which Allen built with Husain Al-Mohssen and Abdulrahman Tarabzouni, won a $25,000 first prize in the MIT Arab Business Plan Competition in 2009. Pantucci says he met Allen after getting back to San Francisco and putting out the word that he needed a technical co-founder to build Taskforce.

Getting into Y Combinator was a key moment for the duo, says Pantucci, especially since one of the incubator’s newest partners is Paul Buchheit, the Google alum and angel investor who is the original inventor of Gmail. “Paul was very keen on this idea of being able to essentially get your work away from you, to push it back and say, ‘I realize there’s work you want me to do, but I’m going to do it on my schedule,'” Pantucci says. “You can image what a boon it is to be able to approach him whenever we needed to. His advice around the user experience was extremely helpful.”

Like most of its fellow YC W11 companies, Taskforce accepted the blanket offer of $150,000 in convertible-note financing from Start Fund, the new YC-specific investment fund started by Ron Conway and Yuri Milner. “That was a no-brainer,” Pantucci says. “It’s given us time to think bigger; we’ve now got enough money to get to a product that is in good order and working well” before having to raise more funds.

Right now Taskforce is free, and the core task-management features will stay that way, says Pantucci. But the company has plans to introduce premium, paid features like document management with version control, or integration with Dropbox and other business services. The current app, he says, is “definitely the tip of the iceberg, the proof-of-concept. The user numbers we have had are testament to the fact that people want to interact with their inbox this way. Now we are going to be doing more complicated and grandiose things.”

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • It sounds too complicated. My system is based on “Getting Things Done,” and keeps the inbox clean and organized. Deal with email once a day, and quickly file in these categories: @Action, @ReadLater, @FileLater, @Phone, @ScheduleLater, etc. I really hate tools that take longer to use than it would to simply do this, and I suspect the one you discuss here does just that (sorry!)

  • @Jean: Congrats on having such a strong e-mail management system in place. I think Taskforce is compatible with GTD but it’s probably more useful to people who haven’t already adopted a system such as yours. Also, my impression is that Taskforce shines most when it’s used socially, across an organization — the feature for segregating task-specific discussions to the task widget seems like it would really help to keep your inbox clear, for example.

  • Thanks @Wade for the article.

    @Jean I think Wade is correct, we are building a tool that is for you, and your colleagues to use. It can be used on your own, or in a group, or even organizational environment, and is supposed to be useful at every level. Our idea is the make your inbox the hub of your work, as it already is proving to be where all your work is received.

    This is not to dismiss the GTD methodology, but we really are building something that is targeting the inbox and collaboration.